Home > Church, Faith, The Life and Times of a Disenfranchised Christian > The Life and Times of a Disenfranchised Christian, volume iv: Church without Churches

The Life and Times of a Disenfranchised Christian, volume iv: Church without Churches

May 25, 2008

There’s a lot of conversation going around about a movement of people that’s been labeled many different things – you can take your pick from “the new face of religion in America”, or “a new way to do church”, or “A new kind of Christian“, or “the new Christians“, or the more socio-religious sounding label, “emergent“. I can’t claim to be up to speed on the different viewpoints and contributors out there, though I could probably name some names, but I can safely locate myself somewhere smack in the middle of that conversation as a person who’s become disillusioned with the popular expression of Christianity in America to the point that I avoid identifying myself as a Christian in mixed company.

I recognize that my stance has evolved reactively in some ways, as I’ve identified what kind of Christian I’m not and what sort of things I don’t do relative to what most people seem to believe or expect of Christians, including people who identify themselves as such. I wrote in a previous post how I’ve left the organized church recently as the center of my faith journey, and struck out on a new path that includes church as a habit and resource but which I hope opens me up to a more diverse and personally authentic experience of God in ways that looking to the/a church first and foremost in my pursuit of God precluded me from.

Communities have sprung up around this premise, exploring the possibility that the spiritual life proclaimed and ushered in by Jesus can be pursued outside of an organized and codified religion. It’s an extension in a way of Luther’s assertion that God can be pursued by individuals independent of the ministration of the ordained, where again there is a cultural recognition that there’s more to faith and finding God than is evident (or arguably possible) in the exclusive context of a local organized church. I’m not knocking organization itself, or leadership in the context of an assembled group of people of like pursuit. Without leaders and organization any movement is doomed to fail, whether necessary and helpful or not. Even rebellions or other causes that reject these establishments still have their de facto leaders and make efforts to share common beliefs. It seems though that faith that finds its source in an organization is lacking.

I read The Alchemist recently, a simple parable-like story of one boy’s pursuit of his dreams and exploration of spirituality. While not categorically a Christian book, it inspired me in my pursuit of faith at a point in my life when I needed it most desperately, when my general happiness was already forfeit and my dreams were in jeopardy. What struck me most was the tale’s straightforward view of the supernatural and spirituality, and the simplicity of the boy’s passion in his pursuit of what he felt mattered most. It seems to me as though the one is a catalyst for the other – when spiritual things are uncluttered by religion and unaffected by doubt or apathy, but simply allowed to be, and to be as real as gravity or love or time which are impervious to how fervently they are believed in, then apprehending and pursuing spiritual things and the deeper dreams and passions of life is as straightforward a process as living, and living with eyes open for the opportunities that inevitably present themselves. Life becomes rich and meaningful, and laden with daily significance.

I was about to write a paragraph relating this world view to Christianity but it seems paradoxical to the point of this post. It’s what I’m after – relating to God in a way that is uncontrived though it may involve habit or ritual, and significant to my daily life though the nature of the pursuit itself is unearthly. I don’t think this approach is incompatible with the Christian faith; I hope instead that it leads to a deeper appreciation of who God is and how then to live.

  1. a Dad
    May 26, 2008 at 11:16 pm

    There is much to respond to this post. However, I must try to keep it short. (I’ll believe it when I see if I do.)

    I learned a great deal years ago when my faith was challenged to its very core. This occurred in divinity school. I am fond of calling the school I went to a non-christian divinity school because I was classmate to Jewish and Buddhist students, as well as Christians who defined their beliefs in a radically different manner than I. For example, my parables professor stood at the end of our course and proudly exclaimed that he had just found a way to be a Christian and not have to have Jesus be God. This to me was truly incomprehensible and, in fact, was then (and probably still now is) a heretical statement!!!

    The (not-so) short version of my story is that I went through two semesters of weekly theological questions (like “Was Jesus born of a virgin?” and “Do you believe in original sin? If so, is it passed on biologically?”). Each week, all I had to do write was a one page, handwritten response. Not one of my 32 responses was intelligible to any of the students. At the end of the two semesters, I said to the discussion group, “I don’t know what I believe; I know that I still believe, but right now I do not know what. And it will take me at least three months to figure out what.” This turned out to be accurate. Three months later, I found myself on the beach reading Elton Trueblood’s book, “A Place to Stand.” He quoted C.S. Lewis who said that either Jesus is God, or he was a crazy person because no good teacher would claim he was God. Unless He was. And secondly, and more impactful on me was (paraphrased), the more things you use to hold up your faith, the shakier it is. This astounded me. I thought the more the better, but learned that I simply needed one point of reference. One of the great explorers in Antarctica left base camp on a beautiful day and withing 20 minutes was caught in a horrific, blinding snowstorm. He simply placed his walking stick in the snow and walked spiraling circles outward from his stick, keeping his stick in sight at all times. He walked directly to his camp by doing so. He simply needed only one point of reference. This is the metaphor I use for my central and single tenet for faith.

    Prior, I thought that my childhood faith was safe from the quakes of life. Instead, I found my house of faith crashed. I learned that each of the 32 questions I failed to answer to others’ satisfaction was a stilt that my house of faith lost. At the end of that year, my house of faith lay shattered. Fortunately, I found that it had shattered on the rock of what Jesus claimed.

    I have re-formulated my faith based on one piece of information. If Jesus is God, I am a Christian; if not, I am not. All the rest of the original supports (tenets) became part of the superstructure of my faith built on the foundation that Jesus is God. What this means to me is that if I ever learn that any one of them is false, all I need to do is change the support of the walls of one of the rooms of my faith tenets. Whereas, before “divinity” school, the shattering of any one of these tenets, shook the very foundation of my whole belief system. During those years, I was a very disoriented man. Now, I find myself attempting to stay geared to the times around me, while anchored to the Rock. (Last concept borrowed from a youth organization I used to work in.)

  2. Reed
    April 19, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    I went to Bible College, played music in Church, and have an eclectic background of
    Christian Church experiences; from Pentacostal to Eastern Orthodox. I see organized religion a little differently than many who are struggling with the modern church. I believe that doctrine and truth are the Holy Spirit’s tools to commit to faith, yet the culture of the church is often what keeps people attending or causes them to fall away. I love the Orthodox Church, yet struggle with it’s Eastern culture. I was at one time very comfortable with the Charismatic Church, but grew tired of its it’s lack of tradition and reliance on emotion (Western culture). I worked for a liberal Lutheran Church for a year as Property Custodian, and left without taking a backward glance. As I grow older I miss having a faith tradition, but cannot bring myself to the decision to join and commit. All my excuses seem weak or phony, even to me, but there it is. When I came to Christ the experience was life-changing, exciting, and all-encompassing: now I have become so jaded and judgemental, I wonder if I will pollute whatever faith environment that I may try. What I want is to know God as He is, without my lifetime of experiences robbing me from knowing Him. Life makes some of us hard, and some of us gentle. I feel as if my faith-heart is frozen in amber, and I haven’t a clue how to free it. I am up against a wall, to want to be comformed to the image of our Lord, yet reject the standard way (Church) of getting there. Rejection of the Church has led me down a dark and lonely path of ignoring so many other things as well. Rejection of the one becomes a habit in other ways.

  3. April 22, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks for your honesty. I identify with a lot of what you have been through – I tried many different faith traditions, started off in my faith very excited and motivated and have grown more jaded as the years have gone by. I had to reread this post since I had written it about three years ago, and while some things have changed for me I think the general idea of the post is the same. I am in a church I enjoy and am committed to, but it is still not the most important element of my faith practice (though exactly what that practice would be seems hard to pin down these days). One thing you wrote caught my attention. You said, “What I want is to know God as He is, without my lifetime of experiences robbing me from knowing Him.” From my perspective, I think the way God has designed us to know Him is exactly through our lifetime of experiences. I would bet if you were to sift through the experiences you’ve had, both helpful and unhelpful, with an eye for what they revealed of God to you, whether in what you gained or what you disagreed with, you would see glimpses of Him throughout, and perhaps have a clearer sight of Him “as He is”, inasmuch as any of us can see that.

    With all my disavowing of church as the ultimate expression of faith, I also think that walking out a life of faith is very explicitly not designed to be done alone. There are no monks or hermits in the New Testament, only communities. The best times in my life, when my faith was vibrant and growing, have been when I am part of a community of people sharing our lives and pursuing God together. The most dismal times of my life (particularly the last six or seven years) have been when I haven’t had people to go to and share my struggles and successes with. I have regained a little of that community lately and it has made a big difference to me. I am not fully melted out of the amber (I like that image), but I’m pretty sure going it alone played a big part in getting me there in the first place.

    The church I’ve been going to is a Vineyard church – they are hit or miss in my experience around the country, but this one focuses on serving others as a primary expression of God’s love. I’ve also been helped recently by listening to Tim Keller’s podcasts and reading N T Wright. I don’t have the fire that I once had, but I am on my feet again at least.

  4. April 24, 2013 at 11:44 am

    I know exactly how you guys feel. I am 33, a passionate Christian, but one that cannot find a church. I am primarily reformed concerning soteriology, but Charismatic concerning the power of God to His people, and a little of this and that. So, no wonder church as the main expression of my relationship with God (as it has traditionally been I think) is really not possible. My wife is Southern Baptist and so I have been going to a Southern Baptist church with her, because I have decided that I will not be happy with any of them evidently. It is refreshing to see that I am not alone in this. I thought perhaps it was just something in my bloodline.

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